Pandora’s Toolbox, The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention by Wake Smith, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK 2022. 343 pages plus appendices, notes and index.
There is a lot to chew on in Pandora’s Toolbox, the disturbing new book by author and former division president at Boeing, Wake Smith. Smith is a lecturer at Yale University and a Fellow at the Harvard Business School. He is a strong advocate for a type of solar radiation management called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). SAI is a geoengineering approach that proposes to inject reflective materials like sulfur dioxide or diamond dust high into Earth’s atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s heat back into space. Once the aerosols are released, they rapid spread through the atmosphere and are carried north or south to the poles.
If you remember the myth of Pandora’s Box—when the box was opened against the advice of the gods by a woman whose curiosity got the best of her, evil spirts, illnesses, and hardships were released into the world. From a psychoanalytic point of view, Pandora’s Toolbox is an interesting choice of metaphor from a proponent of geoengineering. Maybe deep-down, Smith worries SAI could be trouble?
The SAI technique does nothing to correct the underlying pathology of climate change, which is high levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases like methane and certain refrigerants. Another huge environmental problem results from burning fossil fuels as the ocean acidifies from dissolved carbon dioxide. But Smith sees SAI as one of the few viable options available to prevent untenable global temperature increases.
There has been much resistance and public outcry against even small live tests of SAI, so the research on SAI is currently done via computer modeling. Opponents worry about unintended consequences, like damaging the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere and reducing rainfall in parts of the world leading to crop failures. The sky would likely look white, and solar panels would be less effective. Pandora’s Toolbox agrees these are areas that need more research, along with figuring out how to build a world-wide consensus.
The first 148 pages of this book are a review of current climate science, international climate agreements and mitigation options, such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), and why Smith thinks they are inadequate to meet the need. The subsequent sections on solar radiation management covered topics you might not see elsewhere—cloud brightening for one.
Smith’s true interests show up in Chapter 15, SAI Deployment. He wants to build planes flown by live pilots. Planes can easily reach the stratosphere. Here, and in the book’s summary, Smith devotes 13 pages to designs for aircraft and gadgets to deliver the SAI aerosols 11 miles up into the stratosphere (from zero to seven miles up is troposphere; 7 to 30 miles up is stratosphere).
Given the troubling history of corporate malfeasance, lying and greenwashing with Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, etc., a book by a corporate aerospace executive formerly of Boeing (remember the 737 Max crashes?) pushing ahead at this level of detail before there is consensus on the need for SAI, is not likely to engender trust in the wider community. But he is committed. Smith states “there is no end in sight as regards the narrow row that I intend to hoe in trying to illuminate the practicalities to SAI implementation.”
The biggest issues I have with this book are the ethics and the economics. He relies heavily on the economic concept of “discounting” (a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in the future). Based on his economic perspective, he asserts that a “rational actor” might prefer warming of 2oC over 1.5oC, or 3oC over 2oC.” He did not define “rational.” Climate goals from the Paris Accords in 2015, and in other accords aim to limit global warming to below 2 oC and preferably to 1.5oC compared to pre-industrial levels.
Smith relies on 2013 work by Nobel Laureate and climate economist William Nordhaus. Smith quotes Nordhaus, “The economic impacts from climate change will be small relative to the likely overall changes in economic activity over the next half century to century,” so the projected increase in per capita GDP for poor and middle-income countries would offset the changes in standard of living from a 3oC warming.
Smith writes “When we ask ourselves how much economic sacrifice we should undertake on behalf of unborn generations, it is important to recognize how much richer those future citizens are likely to be and therefore how much more affordable climate defenses will be for them than they are for us.” What in the world is he thinking?
Interestingly, Nordhaus’s work in 2021 is supportive of mitigation. He calculates the externalized costs of pollution (companies externalize their expenses by dumping their wastes into the air and water for someone else to clean up) and the benefits of reducing pollution. He does this with a price on carbon, something the Citizens’ Climate Lobby has advocated for years. (if you have a chance, check out EN-ROADS, an interactive program on carbon emissions. Carbon pricing and taxes have the best impact, and dividends are likely to be popular, as they are in Alaska as Smith points out).
When carbon is priced, the resulting economic growth is obvious. Mitigation pays for itself and then some. Nordhaus recently wrote “Those who claim that environmental regulations harm economic growth are completely wrong, because they are using the wrong yardstick.”
The point of my focus on Nordhaus is that Smith uses his work to explain why many mitigation strategies are not cost effective against business as usual. For example, in discussing the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Smith states we would need 1000 more units like the CCS plant in Iceland to make a dent in the excess carbon in the atmosphere. Smith is not encouraging about the finances. He is a hammer and SAI is his nail.
He also pushes SAI because he thinks it may potentially take centuries for climate to stabilize once we stop emissions or get to net zero. Humankind is very fortunate that this assumption may be inaccurate.
In a great review of newer climate models called Earth System Models, which take dynamic carbon cycles into account, Zeke Hauser shows that, “If emissions are cut to zero…atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would quickly fall [over 20 years], before eventually stabilizing at a lower level.”
Smith is correct that there is a mind warp preventing all of us and our governments from acting on the data we have. Why are we letting our world get to crisis tipping points when we have the technology, money, and knowledge to do something more sensible? Some of it is who controls the money and resources (looking at you, Putin, corporate shills, political hacks, and oligarchs everywhere). Some of it may be that the human response to too many choices is to make none.
What if Smith is right and SAI is the last-ditch chemotherapy to save life as we know it? Would that motivate us to get petroleum products out of our lives now? Are we up to fighting the dark side of dirty oil money? Maybe instead of increasing the world supply of oil and gas in response to the violent Russian invasion of Ukraine, we could choose to rapidly decrease demand for fossil fuels by a heroic focus on clean energy.
I’ll close with an analogy: My parents were heavy smokers. Each attempted to quit numerous times without success, until each of them developed terminal illnesses. Once they realized they were going to die, they quit smoking, when it had no chance of saving them. It was tragic.
Let’s not be tragic in the same way when it comes to fossil fuels. The idea that reputable scientists are even considering the need for SAI ought to scare the bejesus out of us, like stage 4 non-small cell adenocarcinoma terrified my mother.
For me, buying oil and gas has become intolerable from a moral perspective. We have good options for alternatives. Please do what you can to stop the emissions from your own lifestyle. Demand our government holds polluters responsible. Push for a carbon tax, with dividends for those most impacted. Push to stop the subsidizing of fossil fuels. It’s not kum-ba-yah. It’s good economics. Let’s keep the lid on Pandora’s Toolbox.
Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focuses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Opinion: Fighting pollution and climate change pays for itself. William D. Nordhaus. MarketWatch 9/9/21. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-surprising-impact-of-properly-accounting-for-pollution-in-the-gdp-numbers-11631051553 Accessed 3/27/22